Private use of small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (“UAVs” or “drones”) for recreational and commercial use has been sky-rocketing.  This trending surge of UAV traffic has caused civil regulators at the federal, state and local levels to begin enacting various rules and guidelines for pilot certification and flight procedures.  However, it is not only hobbyists and entrepreneurs who have perceived the utility of UAVs. Now, criminals have begun using drones to further ever more sophisticated crimes.

It was only recently disclosed that last year an FBI hostage rescue team positioned in an elevated post for surveillance was surrounded by small drones, which were then used to swoop past the agents in a series of “high-speed low passes.”  This aggressive swarm style tactic was successful in flushing the team out of hiding. Joe Mazel, the head of the FBI’s operational technology law unit acknowledged that the drone operation blinded the team, causing the group to lose “situational awareness of the target.”

The details of the incident remain “law enforcement-sensitive,” so details are limited.  However, the incident shows how criminal groups are beginning to use small drones to pull off increasingly complex crimes.

Agent Mazel said the suspects had backpacked the drones to the area in anticipation of the arrival of law enforcement.  Not only did they “buzz” the hostage rescue team, they also kept continuous observation on the agents, feeding live video to the group’s other members via YouTube. “They had people fly their own drones up and put the footage to YouTube so that the guys who had cellular access could go to the YouTube site and pull down the video,” he said.

Mazel said counter surveillance of law enforcement agents is the fastest-growing way that organized criminals are using drones.  However, drones are being used in other ways to commit crimes, as well.  For instance, some criminal organizations have begun to use drones as part of witness intimidation schemes.  These groups are using drones to continuously surveil police departments and precincts in order to see “who is going in and out of the facility and who might be co-operating with police,” said Mazel.

In addition, drones are playing an increasing role in robberies, smuggling and similar crimes. Sophisticated criminals are using UAVs to observe target facilities, identify gaps in security, and determine patterns (i.e., where the security guards go and when).

Andrew Scharnweber, associate chief of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, described how criminal networks are exploiting drone technology to watch Border Patrol officers, identify their patrols or gaps in coverage, and then take advantage of them.

“In the Border Patrol, we have struggled with scouts, human scouts that come across the border. They’re stationed on various mountaintops near the border and they would scout … to spot law enforcement and radio down to their counterparts to go around us. That activity has effectively been replaced by drones,” said Scharnweber, who added that cartels are able to move small amounts of high-value narcotics across the border via drones with “little or no fear of arrest.”

Unfortunately, the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better since there is no easy or quick technological solution. Ahn Duong, the program executive officer at DHS’s homeland security, science and technology directorate noted that the U.S. military has effectively deployed drone-jamming equipment to the front lines in Syria and Iraq, but most of these countermeasures are not suited or have not been tested for use in American cities where they may interfere with cell phone signals, or possibly even the avionics of other aircraft.

Still, authorities are not resting on their laurels. The most recent version of the FAA Reauthorization bill contains two amendments that are aimed at improving the situation.  According to Angela Stubblefield, the FAA’s deputy associate administrator in the office of security and hazardous materials safety, one of the amendments would make it illegal to “weaponize” consumer drones. The other, and arguably more important, would require drones that fly beyond their operators’ line of sight to broadcast an identity allowing law enforcement to track and connect them to a real person.

“Remote identification is a huge piece” of cutting down on drone crime, Stubblefield said. “Both from a safety perspective… enabling both air traffic control and other UAS (unmanned areal systems) to know where another is and enabling beyond line-of-sight operations. It also has an extensive security benefit to it, which is to enable threat discrimination. Remote ID connected to registration would allow you to have information about each drone, who owns it, operates it, and thus have some idea what its intent is,” said Stubblefield.

Drones are no different from any other revolutionary technology advance. Leaps in technological capability frequently outpace developments in the law.  It will take time, but eventually regulators will catch-up.

About the Author:

Craig H. Handler, Esq. is an experienced attorney focusing his practice primarily on complex commercial, construction, real estate, technology and insurance issues. Mr. Handler is one of the few attorneys on Long Island with expertise in drone laws and regulations.  Mr. Handler is also an experienced drone pilot, and enjoys using his DJI Phantom 4 Pro and DJI Mavic Pro to capture photos and video on the east end of Long Island.

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